An excerpt from Immeasurable Life, continued
these compassionate manifestations, therefore, are none other than those adopted by the Eternal Buddha in order to reveal true reality to the people of our world. They received embodiment through individuals, over time, who became awakened to this reality and committed their insights to the texts that have come down to us in the form of the Pure Land sutras.
And so it is with the notion of the Pure Land. If we had to use everyday language to capture the sense of inconceivable bliss and liberation of Nirvāṇa, what we find in the sutras is certainly a most beautiful and effective means of doing so and in a way that meets the pressing spiritual needs of ordinary people. While these narratives might seem highly fanciful, we must remember not to become overly captivated by the exotic depictions of spiritual reality that we find in the sutras seeing as they are only forms-albeit very powerful ones capable of attracting our deepest aspiration for a realm of beauty and blessedness which, in any case, completely surpasses our ability to comprehend conceptually.
What lies behind such forms is much greater-even more wonderful-than what is stated. These texts constitute a sacred veil. We can either just admiring the “fabric” of these richly imaginative evocations from the outside, beautiful as they are, or we can ever so tentatively lift this veil to catch a glimpse of the formless light of the Dharma-Body which sustains all these compassionate disclosures. In a way, of course, these texts constitute symbols but not in the sense of being empty signs pointing back to us as their human fabricators but as intimating something inconceivable which we can never fully grasp, in this life at least, except through these images of joy and wonder.
The other feature of Pure Land Buddhism that challenges some people is the emphasis on what is often referred to as “faith”-a word which, unfortunately, has fallen on hard times. When understood in its fullest significance, it denotes, as perhaps no other English words can do, a range of profound and complex attitudes which are perfectly Buddhist. Shinran describes it as an interesting mind “full of truth, reality and sincerity; the mind of ultimacy, accomplishment, reliance and reverence; the mind of discernment, distinctness, clarity and faithfulness; the mind of aspiration and exaltation; the mind of delight, joy, gladness and happiness; hence, it is completely untainted by the hindrance of doubt.”
The term that he used to capture this “entrusting mind” is shinjin (or citta-prasāda in Sanskrit) which means “true and clear heart and mind” because it represents the mind of the Buddha to which we become awakened. This is a far cry from any notion of faith as resembling blind belief. In essence, shinjin is wisdom (prajnā). It is a form of direct spiritual knowledge (“the eye of the heart”) that sees things as they are because it is a vision imparted to us by Amida Buddha, even though we remain “foolish beings” captive to our myriad desires and delusions.
The realization of shinjin, as the breaking through of the Buddha’s beneficent karmic force (also known as “Other-Power”) is what tempers our “blind passions” here and now and close them at the time of death when we attain “birth in the Pure Land” (that is, realize Nirvana). The way in which the awakening of shinjin is manifested is through the nembutsu-the mindful invocation of Amida’s Name in the form of Namu Amida Butsu (“I take refuge in Amida Buddha”).
When uttered with a heart of faith, the sound of the nembutsu heralds the working of Amida who comes forth, on our lips, as a living presence. This is both our call to the Buddha and the compassionate call we received in response. When we ‘hear’ the Name for the first time, and understand its significance, we are then led naturally to say the nembutsu in gratitude while fully recognizing that every genuine utterance is permeated by the “true heart and mind” of Amida Buddha.
Even those for whom shinjin does not feel certain or settled, great benefit can still be derived from simply saying the nembutsu – not because it is some kind of “magical” phrase but because the very act of reaching out to Amida through his Name, even if it is unsure and faltering at first, signifies an aspiration and the seeking of refuge which, in time, will elicit a definitive response whereby we come to feel “constantly illuminated by the light of that Buddha’s heart, grasped and protected, never to be abandoned” (Shan-tao).
The Fragrance of Light, A Journey Into Buddhist Wisdom Compiled and edited by John Paraskevopoulos. Sophia Perennis, an imprint of Angelico Press. www.@angelicopress.com